Fire & Art: The Zouaves

 

Ellsworth, Lincoln and the NY Volunteers

The Smithsonian Museum of American Art is running an exhibition through April 28th, entitled The Civil War and American Art.  It includes 75 works, mostly created during the war by some of America’s most famous artists of the period: Winslow Homer, Frederic Church and Eastman Johnson.  It also includes battlefield photography from Alexander Gardner and others.  The paintings are by no means all military but convey the sense of the approaching war and life during it.  Folks familiar with the 19th century Hudson River School and Luminist painters will like what they see.

Elmer Ellsworth was a native New Yorker who wound up working in the Springfield law office of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.   Ellsworth helped with the presidential campaign and went to Washington with the president-elect in 1861.  When the war began and Lincoln called for volunteer regiments, Ellsworth pledged his support and with the president’s personal backing, he was an odds-on favorite.

Zouaves
The Briarwood Pipe
Winslow Homer
1864

Colonel Ellsworth had studied the North Algerian based French Light Infantry known as the Zouaves.  The original Zouaves were Berbers from the Zouaoua tribe and were reputed to be both fearless and expert.  Ellsworth intended to raise a regiment of American Zouaves for his volunteer regiment and he knew where they should come from:  New York volunteer fire companies.

We mostly associate the Zouaves with their colorful uniforms made up of some combination of baggy trousers, short coats and “oriental” headgear including the Fez, complete with tassel.  Ellsworth’s Zouaves were the 11th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Recruiting was fast and successful.  He awarded officer commissions to several fire company foremen and within four days had twice as many men as needed.  The final regiment strength was 1,100.  Their departure for Washington, DC, was a comedy of errors as they failed to meet Army regulations and were told to remain in New York–they left anyway.

11th New York Encamped in DC

Ellsworth’s mis-calculation was to assume that “New York” firefighters were a cohesive unit when they were anything but.  He failed to note that they were famous for their company rivalries which often extended to sabotaging firefighting efforts and outright brawling during fires.  Once in Washington they broke into taverns,  swedged* on meals and generally terrified the locals.  Back to New York they went where they were quartered in Battery Park. Their mayhem continued.  Any Zouave on the street was arrested until 400 were shipped to Virginia to be included in another regiment.

The Zouaves saw combat at the battle of First Bull Run and helped quell the notorious 1863 Draft riots in New York.  Ellsworth was famously killed in an altercation in Alexandria, Virginia over a confederate flag.

 

*swedge: leave without paying for a meal.

 

Credits:  Smithsonian, Wiki

 

The Civil War and American Art

1st floor West, American Art Museum (8th and F Streets, N.W.) Washington, DC
November 16, 2012 – April 28, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

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